Kavanaugh hearing shows how gender bias can cloud our judgment
No news story has consumed and dominated the US media these past few weeks more than that of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. He was nominated to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, filling the position left vacant by retired Judge Anthony Kennedy.
On the announcement of his nomination, President Donald Trump said of Kavanaugh: “There is no one in America more qualified for this position, and no one more deserving.” Kavanaugh’s confirmation seemed like a sure thing — until three women came forward accusing him of sexual assault. The most notable accuser was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a highly respected professor at Palo Alto University in California, who later testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh forced himself on her at a high school party more than 30 years ago. Kavanaugh, who also testified to the committee, unequivocally denied the allegation.
What followed in the news cycle was a case of he said, she said analysis of who gave the more compelling and believable testimony. Despite the sexual assault allegations, and the dramatic events unfolding on the floor of the House, the Senate last week confirmed Kavanaugh’s appointment by a vote of 50-48. He was then sworn in as a judge of the Supreme Court.
The story of Kavanaugh and Ford is significant because it rides on the wave of the much wider conversation on sexism and power in society. Their testimony was a decisively indicative test of how we, as a society, perceive allegations of sexual assault against so-called well-reputed men, and how differently we identify with victimhood and emotional expression when it comes to men and women.
Ford’s opening statement was: “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.” This was a clear testimony to the fear most women share that they will not be believed if they speak up. Despite that, most experts described her testimony as credible, cooperative, honest and void of any political motivation.
On the other hand, Kavanaugh’s outburst on the Senate floor was described by law professors as angry, uncooperative, bizarre and overtly emotional. He began by weaving a conspiracy theory accusing the Democrats of plotting a political hit job against him in revenge for the 2016 elections. This was alarming to both parties because Supreme Court judges are expected to be impartial. The testimony did so much damage to his character that he felt compelled to publically defend his temperament days later in a Wall Street Journal column titled “I am an independent, impartial judge.”
The paradox in the way we perceived both testimonies did not go unnoticed by women around the world
Asma I. Abdulmalik
The paradox in the way we perceived both testimonies did not go unnoticed by women around the world. “What if I was being interviewed for a tenured position, accused of sexual misconduct, and I yelled and cried and called the interview a circus? Would I still get the job?” asked one on social media. And so I also ask, what if a woman stood in front of an all-male panel, asking them not to look at her past, but instead judge her as a mother, a daughter, and a wife? Would the panel still look at her the same?
Ford, and women in general, are aware that both the tone of their voice and their specific words need to be carefully chosen. “There’s a challenge any time you’re speaking in a public forum as a female,” explains Melissa Baese-Berk, associate linguistics professor at the University of Oregon. “If you’re overly emotional, you’re criticized for that. If you’re not emotional enough, you’re criticized for that, too.” Had Ford presented her testimony as angrily as Kavanaugh did his, or interrupted the panel, or challenged the questions, she would have surely been criticized, labeled as emotionally unstable, and perhaps even discredited.
Subtly missed in the media and across various groups was the over-glorification of Kavanaugh’s achievements in an attempt to downplay the allegations. It was repeatedly mentioned that he was at the top of his class academically, captain of the varsity basketball team, and went to Yale College and Yale Law School. Ford, and women in general, often feel the need to pull themselves back and project a small image of themselves for fear of being criticized. It was hardly mentioned that she specializes in designing statistical models for research projects, teaches clinical psychology at Palo Alto University, and has written or co-written several books.
Furthermore, and what is more alarming, is the “so what” attitude that many people felt about the sexual assault allegations, saying things like: “He was a hormonal teenager and enjoyed his beer, who didn’t at that age? Should we judge him for something he did over 30 years ago?” Normalizing male sexual misconduct to the point where the victim suffers character assassination is a horrifying thought. Yet we see it occur all the time.
Ford’s testimony may not have swayed the decision to confirm the judge, but it will still be remembered as the day we realized how our gender bias can easily cloud our judgment, even when we know who the victim is.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @AsmaIMalik